A bluffer's guide to the scrapping of English Baccalaureate Certificates

Tes Editorial

What's happening?

The education secretary is abandoning his plans to introduce a brand new set of harder exams for 16-year-olds, called English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs). Schools were due to start teaching these in core subjects from 2015, with the first exams to be sat in 2017. Now they will stick to GCSEs, although new versions of these exams will be introduced for the same timescale.

Does this mean the EBac is going?

Be careful to avoid confusing EBCs with the EBac, which is a league table measure that has existed for the past two years. The EBac measure checks how many pupils have gained good GCSE passes in five subject areas, which must include: English, maths, at least two sciences, a foreign language, and history or geography.

Yes, we knew that. But is the EBac going?

Not exactly. A new consultation on accountability measures states that the EBac measure will continue to exist. However, the proposal is to introduce a new "headline" league table measure for GCSEs, already being referred to as "Best 8". This will measure the average scores from eight subjects pupils take: English; mathematics; three other EBacc subjects (such as sciences, languages, history, geography or computer science); then three more subjects, which could be from the EBacc or could be other GCSEs, such as art, music, RE, or even certain vocational qualifications. This measure will be a points-based system, so could end the obsession with the C-D borderline, encouraging teachers to stretch all pupils.

So this new measure will replace the EBac?

In a way, as it should be a more important measure in league tables, and the old "five A*-C including English and maths" measure is being axed. But two other measures will be even more important: one will be a progress measure based on the "Best 8" subjects, showing the value added to pupils' learning since they took their key stage 2 English and math tests. The other will be a measure that simply shows the percentage getting a C or above in GCSE English and maths. Together, these two measures will be part of floor targets for schools. The idea is that they guarantee every pupil will get the basics, but will also stop schools with high-achieving pupils from coasting.

Couldn't schools just stick with EBac subjects then?

Pupils could indeed carry on studying EBac subjects only for their "Best 8" (if they did English, maths, the three separate sciences, a foreign language, history and geography, for example). However, the fact pupils' scores will matter more than getting them to a C grade means there will be now be an incentive to put students in for some subjects where they are individually likely to do well - which could be art, music, dance, design and technology or any other GCSE.

Should this be cause for music, art and RE teachers to celebrate?


How will the new GCSEs be different?

The new exams will be linear and taken at the end of two years, with the end of bite-sized modules. Extended writing questions will be introduced to subjects such as English and history, with more problem-solving in maths and science. All pupils will answer the same harder questions, but the very brightest, on course for A grades, will be expected to take more challenging extension papers in maths and science.

Isn't a lot of that very similar to what they were going to do with EBCs?

Well, yes. But now there won't be an obvious subject hierarchy, which there would have been if some subjects had switched to EBCs while others had to stick with GCSEs.

How will the curriculum content change?

Michael Gove has announced plans for a "knowledge-based" national curriculum. It will include a focus on multiplication tables and mental arithmetic in maths; grammar, punctuation, spelling and pre-20th century literature in English; and a clear chronology of British and world events in history. We'll have more details on that up shortly.

Why have ministers made this U-turn?

According to former schools minister Nick Gibb, it is not a U-turn but a "tweak". Reasons for the U-turn are likely to include the widespread opposition to the plan, which even annoyed some senior Conservatives. For more background, read this rather prescient TES cover story from last month predicting retreat on EBCs.

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